(Credit: Netflix)

Films

How 'Glass Onion' uses a classic Beatles track as a plot primer

Glass Onion, Rian Johnson’s brilliant sequel to Knives Out, has to be one of the sharpest murder mysteries of recent years. Such films tend to wait until the very last moment to deliver the big reveal. And while Johnson manages to keep us on tenterhooks until the film’s climactic finale, he also lays out the entirety of the plot from the get-go. What’s more, he does so using only the title.

Success stories like Knives Out are rare. Not only was the 2019 picture one of the highest-grossing films of the year, but it was also completely original and not based on any existing intellectual property. Before the film even hit cinemas, Johnson was already teasing the possibility of a sequel, and in 2020 Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery was given the green light.

During a conversation with Netflix, Johnson revealed that the sequel’s title arrived early on. “I literally got out my iPhone and searched my music library with the word ‘glass’,” he explained. “There’s got to be some good glass songs. I was like, ‘Oh, is it a glass fortress? Is it a glass castle? Is it a glass man?’ The first thing that came up, because I’m a huge Beatles fan, is ‘Glass Onion.’”

In 1968, John Lennon decided to have a bit of fun. Fed up with people looking for hidden meanings in The Beatles’ music, he set out to write a track that would confuse overly-literal Beatles fans who had taken to interpreting the band’s lyrics as if they contained the secrets to the universe.

Deliberately filled with allusions to past works, abstract imagery, red herrings and trap doors, the song links back to songs like ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, ‘The Fool On The Hill’, ‘Fixing A Hole’, ‘Lady Madonna’, and, notably ‘I Am The Walrus.’ “Here’s another clue for you all,” Lennon sings, clearly enjoying the thought of Beatles fans running rings around themselves. “The Walrus was Paul”.

“That’s me, just doing a throwaway song, à la ‘Walrus’, à la everything I’ve ever written,” Lennon confessed years later. “I threw the line in – ‘the Walrus was Paul’ – just to confuse everybody a bit more. And I thought Walrus has now become me, meaning ‘I am the one.’ Only it didn’t mean that in this song.”

The track’s title serves as the perfect entry point for Glass Onion. – not only because it alludes to the translucent Xanadu of vacuous tech billionaire Miles Bron, but because it’s a Beatles song about Beatles songs. Glass Onion, after all, is a patchwork of well-worn murder mystery tropes. But it goes further than that.

Miles, a Beatles obsessive who owns the guitar Paul McCartney used to write ‘Blackbird’, believes he and his fellow billionaires hold the key to the future in much the same way Beatles fans regarded the Fab Four as shamanic cultural gatekeepers. In the end, of course, Miles’ little game is nothing but a turd wrapped in gold leaf. “It’s so dumb it’s genius,” Birdy says of Miles’ play during their final exchange. No,” he replies, “it’s just dumb!”